The Isle of Wight, a tiny island off the south coast of England, rose to prominence in the public eye in the heyday of 1960s and ’70s rock and roll. The Isle of Wight Festival featured acts ranging from John and Yoko to Miles Davis. Jimi Hendrix played his last major gig at the festival in August 1970 (and died that September). Today it is primarily a more sedate vacation spot and a favorite retirement destination, but you can still see a lot of folks that look like long-in-the-tooth rock stars.
Is that Robert Plant or just some geezer with long hair, a leather jacket and a lot of jewelry? You make the call. Take a trip around the island–13 miles wide and 23 miles long–and and see what it has to offer.
The Isle of Wight is separated from the southern tip of England by the Solent strait, a stretch of water that was a 16th-century center for international piracy and the occasional skirmish between England and her enemies. The Solent is responsible for the milder microclimate that is especially enjoyed by the northern parts of the island.
Cowes and East Cowes
At the top of the island, the sister villages of Cowes and East Cowes are separated by the River Medina, the Isle’s main river. Today it is a favored safe harbor for yachts and smaller sailboats, but it still takes pride in its rich and storied heritage. In this area, as around the rest of the island, caves and tunnels are as numerous as the pirate tales that are still spun for tourists and locals alike.
Cowes is the trendier of the two towns, with lots of touristy pubs, hair salons and quaint little shops of the “Ye Olde” variety. A two-minute ferry ride will take you across the river to East Cowes, Queen Victoria’s old stomping grounds. It gets a share of tourism but is cheaper and much quieter than Cowes. Here, you can still go to a tiny pub and sip on an inexpensive beer while listening to a local musician going into a guitar-solo trance.
Ticket to Ryde?
To the east is the seaside resort of Ryde, by far the most touristy place on the island. In summer, it’s sort of like Venice Beach in California, except for the roller-skating bikini babes. There is a 1970s arcade, shirtless guys in flip-flops, oodles of ice cream shops, seaside racks of postcards and tacky souvenirs. Instead of hot dogs and burgers, you’ll find fish and chips and overpriced beer. Throughout the year there is still a certain liveliness about the place. You can get a cheap Sunday roast dinner along the boardwalk, and for a few pounds (cash only), you can get a small order of fish and chips right across from the Hovercraft station. There are numerous vintage thrift shops, including one that is solely for costumes. You must take that 10-minute hovercraft ride across the Solent. Party on, Ryde!
The Ancient Train
Running from the Ryde Pier head (where the ferry comes in), around the island and ending at the beach town of Shanklin, the 1938 London Tube train cars are not exactly what you’d call refurbished. The wood inside is original and the seat covers probably go back to when the Isle purchased the cars in 1988. It’s a bone-rattling ride, but there’s a helpful conductor on every car to sell you a ticket and tell you when and where to disembark and what to see when you get there. The staff is helpful at every station, and the train is a wonderful way to see the most colorful portions of the island. Besides, it’s fun to realize that, as you enter or leave Ryde, you are taking a train over the sea.
Along the train route, you’ll pass through Brading, Sandown and Lake before ending in Shanklin. In summer, hop off at Sandown and visit the exceptionally cool 1,000-foot amusement pier. In warmer months, the entire esplanade is packed with sun-worshippers and swimmers. Locals have upscale versions of the traditional beach hut, some of them more like small houses. This is the place to get a salad or sandwich made with local crab or to sip a cocktail at a beachside bar. Both kids and adults can have a blast with the video and arcade games inside the covered pier and consume the appropriate junk foods from hot dogs to cotton candy.
By the ferry terminals of Ryde, Cowes, East Cowes and Yarmouth you’ll find a collection of double-decker tour buses that will take you around the island, allowing you to hop off at the zoo, Robin Hill Park, the garlic farm or any number of attractions. Be advised that you may have to wait a while for another bus to pick you up, but your driver can give you at least an approximate time that the next bus will come along. It’s only a couple of pounds for the ride, and the view from the top level is terrific.
In America they’re called thrift shops, but in the UK they are charity shops, and they are all over the Isle of Wight, sometimes as many as a dozen on one street. Run by hospitals, hospices and even animal charities, these little gems are the places to find beautiful vintage gowns, jewelry, hats and gloves. Also, if you’ve come unprepared for cold or rainy weather, you can grab a hooded jacked for less than the price of a burger. Care is taken that articles are not stained or torn. For higher-end pieces like ball gowns, check out West Cowes. Shanklin is your best bet for secondhand rock T-shirts.
Castles and Mansions
The Isle of Wight was Queen Victoria’s favorite retreat, even to the end of her days when her body was laid out in her beloved Osborne House in East Cowes. While it doesn’t qualify as a palace or a castle, it’s definitely a royal residence. Now operated by a heritage society, the building and grounds are open to visitors and even for high tea. Overlooking the sea at the north end of the East Cowes esplanade is Norris Castle, built in 1790 for Lord Seymour. While you can stroll the grounds, the interior is off-limits to visitors.
In the middle of the island is Carisbrooke Castle, where Charles I was imprisoned just before he was beheaded in 1647. However, over the outer gateway, you can see the elaborate initials of Elizabeth Regina (Elizabeth I) engraved along with the date of 1598. Of particular interest is the Well House, where water is constantly hauled up by means of donkeys on a treadmill. Although the castle isn’t habitable these days, there are plenty of artifacts, bronzes and paintings to give visitors a clear picture of life in Carisbrooke.
Not surprisingly, the Isle’s pirate and smuggling history is a major draw for tourists, especially the young ones. Blackgang Chine is a special pirate amusement park at the tip of the island near Ventnor. It features full-sized pirate ships, fairy villages and other attractions that have nothing to do with pirates. However, there are real chines (think ravines) in Shanklin and other coastal towns that were used by pirates and smugglers to hide their vessels and their goods.
Walking and Rambling
The locals call them “rambles,” and nearly every town, especially those on the coast, has a recommended path, many of them loops that will get you back to your starting point. You’ll have no problem finding an interesting path if you just ask in a local shop, pub or restaurant. Especially popular are the walks from Shanklin and Ventnor. Bring your walking shoes and water bottle, and don’t forget to use sunscreen.
Golf and Tennis
Public nine-hole golf courses can be found in Ryde and Sandown, and there’s a 12-hole course in Ventnor, as well as a 16-hole, 72-par set of links in the Newport Golf Club. Sandown’s Brown’s Golf & Café has areas for kids to play, and a variety of pitch and putt courses.
The Isle of Wight has historical and archaeological significance, and its small size make it a good place to pack a lot of activities into a short amount of time. Even the traveling part is unique, with a ferry pulled by chains, a train that goes over the water and a hovercraft that goes on land and sea. A visit to the island will remain in your memory for years to come.